Thursday, September 18, 2014

Contrecoeur

"Vielles amours et vieux tisons s'allument en toutes saisons." - French proverb

Half a lifetime ago, I met a young man who had driven his motorcycle down to spend his summer vacation time camping at Lake Annecy, not far from where I was spectacularly failing as an au pair. I was walking down to the lake to check out a free open-air concert, and he was riding back from it, but when we passed on the road he turned around and came back. My nose, he later told me, reminded him of his cousin's. One thing led to another, as they say, and I ended up spending several weeks with him at his parents' house, and later at his apartment in Amiens. My French wasn't nearly as good as it is now - spending four months talking to no one but a two-year-old doesn't exactly build vocabulary - but we laughed through mistranslations, rode bikes through the country roads, and had a hell of a lot of sex. But then I had to go back to the States, leaving behind a mistranslation that never got cleared up: the exact meaning of amour.

I don't really know what I felt back then, other than that the sex was great and I enjoyed his company. I do know that when he came to visit me in Oregon, he was anticipating a reprise of our French affair, and I was not ready to be that serious - because he was serious, and I was not ready to settle down. No sex, that time. In fact, I asked him to tear up the sexytimes photos from the year before because I was kind of embarrassed about that part. But we kept in touch over the years anyway, mostly in expensive whispered long-distance telephone conversations, and each time I'd say "je t'aime" as I said goodbye. "Toi aussi," he'd respond. I don't really know what I felt during those years either, other than a sense of comfort that in all my wanderings and weirdness, there was someone there waiting for me, steady and unchanging, a rock unmoved by my tidal surges of emotion.

And yet I still wasn't ready to settle down.

But even rocks get worn away eventually. Life goes on, we meet other people, summer affairs get relegated to nostalgic photo albums. He got married, and has two children. We still kept in touch, but via letters. He sent me photos of the babies. And he sent me a letter saying that there was a hole in his heart when he woke up in the morning and it wasn't me lying there next to him. I visited in 2007 and met the wife and kids, even stayed at their house for a week. We went to see his parents, and his father brought out an old cassette tape on which he had recorded a conversation he'd had with his son during the Oregon visit, in which the son describes how I basically abandoned him to spend my days working, and he couldn't understand why my feelings had changed. Which is understandable, because I never really talked about it, just pretended it was normal to be platonic even after being decidedly non-platonic the year before. I apologized for being such a bitch that year, especially after all the kindness I'd been shown by the family - or rather I apologized for being a shit, since I used the word chiotte instead of chienne. Though I suppose that comes to the same thing.

I was trying very hard to keep everything on a "friends only" level, even though I wanted to touch, to kiss, to relax into an embrace. I wanted to say that I still felt the same way.
That I still felt the internal tug of the bond that connected us. But he was married, and the boys were still young, and I don't do marriage-breaking things like that. Though it was arrogant of me to assume that if I said the word the marriage would break up, of course. Over dinner in Paris he told me about problems he had been having with his wife, and I misunderstood some verb tenses and thought that he was saying that he planned to divorce her in a few months, and I assumed (arrogantly) that it was at least in part due to me, and my visit. I rushed to say that I didn't love him, that we were just friends, in a panicked attempt to fend off what I was afraid would turn into a request for me to stay, to come back, to settle down. And I left, again.

My six months in the UK back in 2007 set into motion the series of decisions to move to France, and while I was making plans and relearning verb tenses at PSU I realized that I had started thinking of him more and more. In fact, all the time, for a while. We'd started chatting via that newfangled e-mail system; I practiced my French and he sent me pictures of his garden. And one day I sent him an e-mail that essentially said "by the way, when the kids are gone, do you think it's a possibility that we might get back together again, after all, you and I?" A few weeks passed in which I was nervous and hopeful and scared that he'd actually say "yes, and let's make it right away, I'm getting a divorce" because I was still not ready to settle down.

When he finally answered, the answer was "no." I was more upset than I thought I'd be, but I eventually got over it. Mostly. We met up in Paris for a day back in 2012 and talked about the past and the present and the future, and other than the immediate electricity in the car when we were about to say goodbye things seemed to be on a friendship-only level. And yet, and yet ... that electricity kept buzzing underneath all of our brief e-mails afterwards. Since I am still not ready to settle down, nor to contribute to marital discord, I debated whether to invite him to visit me in Paris when I went up for my birthday weekend this last May. But I did, and he did, and now things are both more clear and more conflicted. Thank god my French had improved, because other than not understanding the word cadenas ("padlock" - we were walking over the Pont des Arts whose railing collapsed not long afterwards) we had no trouble communicating. We walked around trying to find a place to eat ("no tourists!" I said; "no accordions!" he said) and ended up at the courtyard restaurant where Jean and I ate when she visited back in 2012. I had the salade contre-coeur that combined smoked salmon, bananas, and fennel seeds (I had them leave off the goat cheese, but that would have been good). The phrase "à contrecoeur" means "unwillingly" - literally "against [one's] heart." I ordered the salad because of the odd combination of ingredients, but also because that's how I was feeling. I didn't like the fact that I immediately felt that electric connection strengthen as we hugged and kissed hello. And yet I did like it, a lot.

I have changed, and he has, too. His spirit is not so grey and shadowed these days, and he seems happy, or at least happier than before. The conversation flowed fairly easily, although at points I was talking a bit too much, so that I didn't have to listen to the silence that was full of the things we were not saying. I am not comfortable with that silence, when he looks at me in a way that seems to combine "hello, again" and "goodbye forever." Maybe I'd be more comfortable if I knew which it was. I don't think he does.

In one of the classes that I took last year - the tourism one, I think, because we were talking about rules and regulations - the teacher said in answer to a question about those rules, "Tout ce qui n'est pas interdit est autorisé." I don't know what's forbidden any more.

What I do know is that I am still not ready to settle down, and that the future holds an infinite series of choices and future paths. He has settled down, and believes that the choices he made in the past have set his feet on one unchanging path. At least that's the impression I get; since I'm still not entirely fluent, there are times when I miss nuances of words, or don't understand the way they're used - and then of course there's the whole American-vs.-French outlook issue. I grew up in a society that encouraged flexibility and career options, although today that's more of a "be flexible because you can't depend on keeping your job, so you may have to start over" reality as well as one that allows (forces?) middle-aged people to quit jobs as electricians to become chefs or teachers, or the other way around. He grew up in a time when the profession you chose at age 15 or so is the one you could expect to retire from forty years later, no matter that the economic situation has changed and there's no guarantee there either any more, just as in the United States.

And finally there's the fact that I don't have a family and children, and people depending on me. I can, and do, change my mind at a moment's notice, without worrying about anything other than how to get to the next place and whether I can shove everything back into the suitcases again. But I can see a time coming when I'll be ready to settle down, finally, and part of my heart wants it to be with him.

2 comments:

  1. What a melancholy piece. I hope you find what you want, when you're ready to find it.

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  2. Thank you for the good wishes - time will tell. Until then, onward to the next adventure!

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